By Rehan Khan
The Islamic scholarly tradition has a unique feature of self-assessment and self-critique. The interpretative framework that came into being in late 8th century catered to the urges of internal reformation. Two concepts were coined as necessary tools for this reformation. They were “Islah” and “Ahya” or “Reform” and “Revival”. Ijtihad was considered to be the application of these tools. Muslim scholar elite from the formative Islamic period were cognizant of the need to consistently subject Islamic religious thought to criticism and evaluation. This acute sense of recognition on part of Muslims to reform led to a number of revivalist and reformist projects in the entire Islamic history. Reformation and Revival were a constant theme that ran through the vein of Islamic intellectual history.
As Islam entered the 20th century, renewed efforts were made to understand the earlier movements of reformation and revival. To this end, a number of scholarly works were produced. Amongst them, two stood out to be influential for their unique and insightful approach. The first book was written by Mawlana Syed Abul Ala Mawdudi in 1930s. It was entitled Reformist and Revivalist movements of the Deen. Mawdudi explained at length the role of revivalist movements in the intellectual history of Islam. The second tome was authored by Dr Fazlur Rehman Malik in 1980s. It was entitled Reform and Revival in Islam: A study of Islamic Fundamentalism. It was published posthumously. Both of these books were aimed at understanding the former Islamic revivalist movements with an intent to develop a system of theology that would tap into the creative impulses of Islamic doctrinal system and to pave the way for the reorganization of Islam as a formidable and thriving civilization.
Mawlana Mawdudi in his book traces the history of revivalism and reformation from the early Islamic period. The four principle revivalists, according to Mawlana Mawdudi, were Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ibn-e-Taymiyah, Mujaddid Alif Sani, and Shah Wali-ullah. He contended that Ghazali established a solid foundation of gnosticism for the flowering of Islamic sciences for the centuries to come. Though critical of Ghazali’s Hadith scholarship, Mawdudi considered him to be a genius who battled against the heretical content of the Greek philosophers. Ibn-e-Taymiyah was even a greater scholar. He laid bare the fallacies inherent the Greek logical syllogism. Mawdudi was convinced that the intellectual onslaught of the Greek logicians could not have been responded with the same rigor, had a scholar of Ibn-e-Taymiyah’s statute not risen to the occasion. According to Mawdudi, the Wujudi concept of being developed by Ibn-e-Arabi turned into a pantheistic version of Islam. Mujaddid’s revivalist project aimed at ridding Islamic scholasticism of the pantheistic ills.
Mawlana Mawdudi further contended that Shah Wali-ullah was the last great mind and revivalist of Muslims. He mastered all the rational and traditional sciences. His vision of Islam was comprehensive and revolutionary. Erudite and scholarly, Shah Wali-ullah set the stage for the revival of Islam in the 19th century, according to Mawlana Mawdudi. Did Mawlana Mawdudi find these scholars up to the mark? Mawdudi was of the view that Islam was, in principle, a political movement that was meant to dismantle all other political systems. To him, all the former revivalist movements lacked a comprehensive political program that would pave the way for the political order of Islam to dominate over all other models of governance. Dissatisfied with the earlier movements of revivalism, Mawdudi founded a political organization wedded to his vision of political philosophy. The revival of Islam was synonymous with the establishment of an Islamic political order with the vision to dismantle all other systems of governance.
Contrary to the political vision of Mawdudi, Dr Fazlur Rehman’s book investigated Islamic intellectual movements in a different light. Like Mawdudi, Dr Fazlur Rehman also considered Ghazli, Ibn-e-Taymiyah, Mujaddid Alif Sani, and Shah Wali-ullah the most influential Muslim revivalists. But his point of departure with Mawdudi lied in his emphasis on reason. Dr Fazlur Rehman decried the excessive gnosis of al-Ghazali, the rigid traditionalism of Ibn-e-Taymiyah, and the illuminative gnosis of Mujaddid Alif Sani and Shah Wali-ullah. He held that all of these revivalist endeavors lacked a rationalist outlook. Their lack of emphasis led to the intellectual decadence of Islamic scholasticism.
Dr Fazlur Rehman pressed for the need to explore new forms of knowledge and models of reasoning in order to align Islam with the notions of modernism and modernity. Islam, according to Dr Fazlur Rehman had to undergo a radical reformation, but that project of reform and revival must be anchored in a rationalist epistemology. Drawing extensively on the writings of Mutazilites, he proposed that a school of rationalism must be founded that would orient its energies towards developing a modernist system of theology.
While Mawlana Mawdudi and Dr Fazlur Rehman both agreed that reformation was inevitable, they both disagreed on their models of reasoning. Mawdudi was an Islamist who sought for a vision of Islam that would politically dominate all over the world. He found in Islam the perfect religion that offered a comprehensive set of rules and principles for the governance of a Muslim polity. The rituals and norms in Islam were meant to prepare Muslims for the attainment of a global political domination. In opposition to this vision, Dr Fazlur Rehman was a rationalist who scouted for a system of refined theology that would root itself in a modernist epistemology and scientific rationalism. Islam, in the conceptualization of Fazlur Rehman, was a dynamic force of change that had to be actuated by the energy of innovative ideation. Fazlur Rehman and Mawdudi represented two strands of revivalist movement in recent history of Islam.
*Rehan Khan is a Prospective Candidate for the Ph.D. program at NYU.